The first space launch from UK soil ended in failure last night when the rocket suffered an anomaly preventing it from reaching orbit. The mission, if successful, would have been the first time that orbital satellites had taken off from Europe and a landmark moment for the UK space industry.
Unlike traditional vertical launches, where a rocket is fired into the sky from the ground, the UK’s “Start Me Up” project consisted of a modified Boeing 747-400, dubbed Cosmic Girl, carrying a 31-tonne rocket named LauncherOne under the left wing. Dropped by the jumbo jet in flight, the rocket was supposed to fire a series of engines to take it into orbit.
Cosmic Girl took off successfully at 10.01 p.m. local time on 9 January from Cornwall Airport Newquay. The craft then flew to a “drop zone” roughly 10,500 m above the Atlantic off the south-western tip of Ireland where it released the LauncherOne rocket.
Seconds later, the rocket’s first-stage NewtonThree engine fired as planned, propelling it up to 8000 mph. About three minutes later, the second-stage NewtonFour engine ignited, with everything seemingly in order.
However, nearly two hours after take-off – just as Cosmic Girl was returning to land safely at Newquay – Virgin Orbit’s Christopher Relf announced on a live stream of the event that the mission had failed. “It appears that LauncherOne has suffered an anomaly which will prevent us from making orbit for this mission.”
After four successful launches from Mojave Air and Space Port in California, US, the LauncherOne failure is the first since the very first launch attempt in May 2020. As well as the rocket being lost, also missing are several satellites that had been stowed in LauncherOne and were intended to be deployed in low-Earth orbit.
One of the lost satellites is AMAN, which was to be Oman’s first Earth-observation satellite and technology demonstrator for a planned future constellation. Another is STORK-6, the sixth cubesat in the Polish company SatRevolution’s 14-strong Earth observation satellite constellation serving the agricultural sector. The remaining seven small satellites had either been developed or built in the UK.
Spaceport Cornwall – the consortium behind the launch – had hoped the event would showcase the UK’s new space-launch capabilities, with a further six UK spaceports either in development or under construction. The consortium is made up of Cornwall Council, Virgin Orbit, Goonhilly Earth Station and the UK Space Agency.
Mission success was expected to catalyse investment, growth and jobs in the nascent sector as well as inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.
“Over the coming days there will be an investigation by the government and various bodies, including Virgin Orbit,” notes Matt Archer, director of commercial spaceflight at the UK Space Agency. “But we will continue to press on and we will get there in the end.”